Maine Medical Center’s renovation plans include an upgrade for the neighborhood.
Perched high on the Western Promenade, the main campus of Maine Medical Center (MMC) is visible from nearly every vantage point in Portland. The largest hospital in Maine, it has the state’s busiest trauma center and draws patients from throughout northern New England for specialized medical care. From the Italian Gothic original buildings, designed by Francis Fassett and completed in 1892, to a 2015 addition of surgical suites, MMC has continually updated and expanded its facilities to accommodate the latest technology and standards of patient care. This month, it begins a $512 million building project that will advance both of those goals, while also improving a prominent section of the surrounding cityscape. When the MMC “campus replacement and modernization project” is complete in 2023, the nine-story, gray concrete parking garage wall that now looms over Congress Street will be replaced by a sleek steel and glass structure with a new entrance to the hospital on its ground floor.
“For years, we’ve had our back to Congress Street, and we’re now going to face it, which is going to engage Congress Street in a very different way than what we’ve been able to do in the past,” says MMC Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Sanders. His arrival at MMC in 2010 just happened to coincide with the rollout of the expansion project, which had been talked about for several years but put on hold during the recession. A native of northern Maine, Sanders returned to the state from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he spent a decade in hospital administration. “When I came to MMC, [President] Rich Petersen gave me all these blueprints they had at the time and said, ‘We need to get going on this,’” he says.
Renderings for the hospital’s new entrance show convenient access for both vehicles and pedestrians, with a wide plaza for patient drop-off and pick-up and grassy areas abutting the sidewalk. “There’s a lot of excitement about what this will do to this section of the city,” Sanders continues. “If you talk with the city planning department, which I do a lot right now, one of the two areas that they’ve highlighted as part of their comprehensive plan for redevelopment is the St. John neighborhood. Having a $300 million dollar tower on Congress Street will make a good investment for patient care, but I think it’s also going to help enhance the area.”
Even more significant than the orientation and exterior of the new Congress Street tower—is what will be inside: 20 state-of-the-art surgical and procedural suites and 64 new patient rooms. Many procedures that once required hospital stays are now performed on an outpatient basis, so patients who need to be hospitalized are usually quite sick. Currently, MMC often has a shortage of available patient beds, because it cares for the sickest patients in the state and those patients usually require single rooms—today’s medical standard. Overall, the project will add 128 new rooms, half designated to cardiovascular care in the Congress Street tower and the other half designated to oncology in three new floors being added on to the existing East Tower. “Heart and cancer care are two pretty important programs, and two that we anticipate will continue to grow given the aging population,” says Sanders.
The ambitious, five-year project is being tackled in stages. The first phase begins on May 7, when construction starts on the East Tower, and two additional levels being added to the visitors parking garage. The second phase of the project focuses on improving parking for MMC employees. “Compared to our peers both inside and outside our region, we have the lowest sup- ply of parking for visitors and employees, which is not only difficult for normal operations, but creates the inability to adjust to things like a major winter storm,” says Sanders. Because the existing 50-year-old employee garage is inadequate for current staffing levels, many hospital employees start their day searching for a spot in one of five satellite lots. Construction will begin this fall on a roughly 2,400-space parking garage on St. John Street that will allow the hospital to consolidate employee parking in one place. When it is complete, the old garage will be torn down. “It gives us a great footprint to build the Congress Street tower,” says Sanders. He anticipates that with the new entrance and so many employees parking just a few blocks away, the area should see increased foot traffic. “I think that in itself will change the dynamic of what goes on with Congress Street.” Anticipating the change, a group that includes nearby coworking space Peloton Labs and the Parkside Neighborhood Association is developing plans to transform Bramhall Square, a triangle-shaped, steeply sloped “pocket park” on the corner of Congress and Deering streets across from the hospital. MMC has earmarked $30,000 for the project through a new community development grant program that will annually provide that amount for local improvements. Further down the hill, the owners of the Union Station Plaza have retained a Connecticut-based architecture firm to redesign the storefronts and signage at the strip mall—another upgrade for the area.
While the project is being driven by clinical needs, the hospital is also committed to being a good neighbor. The original plan to build a 13-story parking garage on the corner of Gilman and Congress streets was scrapped when residents objected, and Sanders has held regular meetings with neighborhood groups and local business owners to address other concerns, including what might happen the next time the hospital needs to update or expand. Last fall, the Portland City Council agreed to designate what is called an institutional overlay zone, which establishes a framework for future expansion around the existing hospital campus, including specifications such as setting maximum building heights for various areas on the campus. “It gives us a lot of predictability about where we can grow, but it also gives the neighbors an expectation that we’re not going to grow outside of that area,” says Sanders. He is also mindful of the impact the construction process will have, given the density of the neighborhood. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve hired Turner, one of the largest healthcare construction management firms in the country,” he says. “They’ve done a lot of the work in Boston around those large medical centers in pretty tight environments.” There will be times that a section of Congress Street will be closed, including eight weeks this spring. “It’s the only place we can put the 300-foot crane needed to add on to the visitors’ garage,” says Sanders.
His background has prepared Sanders to navigate the complexities of the project, and it appears to be a role he relishes. A former aide to Senator George Mitchell, he also worked for a medical trade group in Washington, D.C., before going to graduate school. “It was in that job that I watched what the CEOs of big teaching hospitals and the deans of medical schools did, and I thought, ‘That’s a really cool environment,’” he says. “They’ve got to run a complex business, with a lot of other help, and they’ve got to be attuned to the political landscape. It’s a combination I loved.” Sanders is acutely aware of the role MMC plays in Maine’s largest city. With patient care, research, and medical school partnerships, the hospital is a big presence apart from its hilltop perch. As Portland itself continues to evolve and grow, it’s smart for MMC to be engaged, and to embrace opportunities to be part of the conversation. It’s what good neighbors do.